Tiger Woods was a Cardinal.
The golf legend played for Stanford for two seasons before turning professional.
But that’s about where Tzu-Yi Chang’s differences from Woods end and the similarities begin.
Woods had an incredibly successful childhood career. He was a golf prodigy, making tabloids and talk shows from the age of two. Woods also won numerous youth amateur tournaments. In 1991, at the age of 15, young Tiger won the IMG Academy Junior World Championship with a score of 286 total strokes.
Twenty-seven years later, Chang won that same competition on the same course. She needed just 280 strokes.
“It’s a dream come true,” Chang said of the tournament. “It’s played at Torrey Pines, which is a really, really good golf course and many, many great players like Tiger Woods and some really famous players on the LPGA tour right now won the junior world championships.”
Chang has looked up to Woods ever since she discovered the game. As a young golf fan, Tiger was already an easy athlete to root for.
Chang didn’t get quite the same support during her formative years as her childhood idol. Her dad initially dismissed her interest in the game as just a childhood fantasy, pushing for her to partake in more academic hobbies like the math team and chess.
Young Tzu-Yi didn’t let that discourage her, however. That commitment paid off, and it was clear from a young age that she was more skillful than her peers.
“For the first few years, I feel like talent was very important for me, because I could beat everyone at a very young age,” Chang said.
Yet in sports, especially individual ones like golf, talent will only get you so far. It is instead the work ethic that makes or breaks a player.
“With sports, you need some talent, for sure. But still, you need to work really hard,” Chang said.
It was Chang’s strong work ethic that earned her a spot on the Taiwanese national team. Although her scores weren’t quite low enough yet to allow her to compete with the team in events, just training with the best players in the country was a fruitful opportunity for the budding star.
“It was very cool. Golf is such an independent sport, so sometimes it’s really great to be on a team,” Chang said. “The experience I spent on the national team really helped me at Cal because I get to play on a team again after five years on tour.”
Her time playing professionally on the national team and on tour helped her hone her short game, a skill Tawainese golfers are renowned for. It also gave her a sense of maturity and responsibility not seen often in young players.
Her teammates and coaches are just as impressed with these character traits as they are with her superb play on the course.
“I think she brings really good energy and really good status to the team,” said senior teammate Maria Herraez Galvez. “She has really high expectations about her game, which I think just inspires all of us to get so much better every day.”
Chang’s experience playing in professional events prepared her well for her future. In the end, her early success is what helped guide her journey to Cal.
This experience may have prepared Chang for the physical aspects of college golf, but some mental challenges remain. Through those difficulties, Chang strives to maintain a certain perspective: nervous physically, not mentally.
Chang is no stranger to competition. In fact, she seems to follow it — to embrace it, to crave it.
Yet, with strong competition comes intense pressure. Chang has had to face this pressure constantly throughout her young career. Despite her numerous accolades against older competitors, Chang has struggled with the pressure to compete with her opponents here at Cal.
“The Hawaii event I put too much pressure on myself,” Chang said. “I wanted to perform well to lead my team after two rough events.”
The pressure on Chang has been even more heightened because of her early success in the Cal program. Because of her talented skillset and positive mentality, the budding freshman has been promoted to the number one or two spot in the lineup. This slots her up against the other team’s top golfers, which, in many cases, are world-renowned athletes.
Among these opponents are two of the world’s top amateur golfers — Stanford seniors Andrea Lee and Albane Valenzuela — who both shared time in the top five of the World Amateur Golf Ranking during the fall season.
Chang has also had to deal with the tough transition to a world-renowned university in a new country. Amid the demands of being a college athlete, Chang has also had to balance the academic load of a student.
“It was very tough at the beginning. I couldn’t manage my time as well as in Taiwan,” Chang said. “I’m already used to it now, though.”
Pushing past the nerves, however, Chang has been able to recognize her unique position. Not only has she had the privilege to witness some of the best players in the world, but she’s also had the opportunity to play against them.
Stanford has been a familiar foe for the Bears this season, so Chang has gotten her fair share of playing time against these top golfers. As a freshman that looks up to many of her Pac 12 competitors, the exposure to top talent so early in her collegiate career has been a great learning experience.
“If we play with Stanford, I can play with top players in the world,” Chang said. “But going into the tournament lining up number five or one, it’s not really different. You’re still playing in a tournament.”
No matter her mindset, however, there will always be pressure on her to succeed — especially given Cal’s struggles this season. In times like those, Chang relies on her father’s advice to keep cool, even as she plays 6,000 miles away from home.
“My dad once told me if you don’t get nervous, you don’t care,” Chang said. “It’s good to be nervous, but nervous mentally, not physically.”
It’s fitting that Chang’s best collegiate round thus far came at the Cardinal’s home course.
In the opening round of the Stanford Invitational, the young Bear rode a two birdie, no bogey round to a stellar -2 finish against some of the top golfers in the country — all while being played on the course Tiger Woods called home for his collegiate career. It was one of Cal’s best individual performances of the year, and cemented Chang’s high rapport both on the team and in the conference.
Chang’s golf story is just beginning, however. This performance will likely be the first of many high finishes for the Taipei native. And although Tiger’s career is in its sunset, the two still share one common goal: they still have more to prove.
Chang has been proving her talent her whole life, but her toughest challenges are still to come. Despite the pressures of the big stage, she remains confident in her abilities and where they can take her in the future.
When asked about that future, Chang has a simple response.
“Definitely to turn pro after,” she said. “Aiming on top for world amatuer rankings. That’s my main goal.”
There will always be pressure for Chang, on and off the course. In her line of work, however, there is no room for nervousness. To be the best, she must embrace and push past the pressure — just as Tiger does.